What Goes Around

Please_Excuse_coverThe YA anthology Please Excuse This Poem, which includes my poem “The Fountain,” is just out from Viking Penguin. The editors, Brett Fletcher Lauer and Lynn Melnick did a great job. Some gems so far: “Talk” by Terrance Hayes, “We Fall in Love with Total Strangers” by James Allen Hall, “Mistakes,” by Shane Book, “Bleeding Heart” by Carmen Giménez Smith, “Rape Joke,” by Patricia Lockwood (it really deserves all the attention, it is that good).

“Most poets begin writing poetry in secret,” writes Carolyn Forché in the introduction, “As with love . . . there is a first time and it is remembered.” I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I certainly remember writing my first poem. I was twenty years old, long past my teenage years. I was only fourteen, however, when I first encountered Carolyn Forché. Here’s an abridged version of the story excerpted from The Middle Room:

When I was nearing my fifteenth birthday and she on the cusp of her fiftieth, my mother took a fiction workshop taught by a young poet named Carolyn Forché. Though twenty years apart in age, Jo and her teacher became good friends. Carolyn, captivated by Latin America, was interested in my mother’s stories about living in Mexico during the 50s and 60s, and Jo, ever hungry for literary companionship, was captivated by Carolyn’s intensity.

Mom_Dad_Mazatlan_50s_web_sm
My mother and father in Mazatlån in the 1950s

All of a sudden “Carolyn,” as my mother called her, became a constant presence in our house. She could be felt hovering over the typewriter in that my mother suddenly no longer cared for writing humorous Thurberesque prose that took for its subject matter life’s absurd moments, but instead wanted to write about the agony of her lonely life during the last few years of her marriage to my father. She could be felt in the air of our living room as a thick white smoke hovering above little ashtrays filled with cigarette butts that suddenly started to appear like film noir extras on the heavy Mexican coffee table next to piles of Time and Sports Illustrated. She could be felt in the grave urgency of words such as “political prisoner” and “refugee” which came through our foyer without stopping to pause over the big fat yellow paperback of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago which had stood brooding on the bookshelf for as long as I could remember . . .

“The Return,” a longish narrative poem in Forché’s 1981 book The Country Between Us, is dedicated and addressed to my mother. In wrenching detail, it tells the story of Forché’s difficult readjustment to the United States after visiting El Salvador. The poem lists acts of unspeakable torture, poured into my mother’s empathetic ear:

                            you took
my stories apart for hours, sitting
on your sofa with your legs under you
and fifty years in your face.

How strange to read this portrait of my mother—written by a rising poetry star when I was just a teenager—now that I have “fifty years in [my] face”! This convergence of factors makes Forché’s presence as “godmother” to Please Excuse This Poem feel, in my case, strangely apt. In her presence I’ll forever be an adolescent, that girl who, “hot, puffy and flustered with wind from riding my bike,” was instinctually aware that when she and my mother were drinking wine, deep in talk, “no matter how wildly I gesticulated in the squeaky language of my fifteen-year-old life, I would not be heard.”

Forché with my mother, Josephine Crum. 1989, about 6months before Jo died of breast cancer.  Photo credit: Tracy Meehleib
Forché with my mother, Josephine Crum, in fall of 1989, about 6 months before Jo died of breast cancer.

A decade later my mother would be dead, and Forché on her way to becoming a major proponent of the “poetry of witness.” Her landmark anthology Against Forgetting collects poetry of courage written in extreme circumstances, poetry that speaks back to historical horrors before which many feel powerless (is adolescence such a horror?). Reading such work, I feel powerless. To which perhaps Forché would justifiably say to me, as she did my mother:

It is
not your right to feel powerless. Better
people than you were powerless . . .

Photo credit: Tracy Meehleib

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